A Crisis of Faith
A dear friend called me today in a profound crisis of faith.
As meditators who have devoted our lives to a practice of enquiry and pursuit of liberation, doubt comes into play in different life-changing and challenging moments—notably, when we face loss, often while experiencing the imminent death of a beloved.
On one most obvious level is the anticipated absence of a fellow traveller. A dissolving relationship, be it a beloved family member, a beloved partner, teacher, lover, or friend — they who have witnessed and shared in varying profound diverse adventures of life. The most explicit visceral experience is the loss and ragged deterioration of the body. As we observe this process, there is no escaping the underlying awareness that yes, this will happen to me as well. The stark exposure of this journey is the inevitable inexplicable confrontation with our death, our mortality, our underlying immortality.
I have spent the past thirty-five years meditating, exploring, contemplating and questioning the very essence of immortality, the nature of deathlessness, liberation and transcendence.
As I mentioned above, today a beautiful wise and aware friend called in a crisis of faith. A crisis which I have undergone many times in varying intensities.
What is transcendence in the light of horrific physical pain and deterioration?
As meditators do we develop a subtle presumption that we are beyond the suffering of the body?
As we pursue a path of liberation from the finite nature of the body, will we eventually need to confront the same apparent reality of death?
Where is immortality in the experience of loss?
Does knowing the ephemeral nature of the body allow for liberation from suffering?
I know from my own experience that pain, be it physical, emotional or mental, my own or of a loved one, challenges my experience of bliss, of blessedness. Even in the field of blessedness, there is always the seed of potential loss, pain and suffering. Indeed, those who are particularly sensitive will never acknowledge or permit a state of blessedness as the awareness of potential change poisons any fleeting joy. As long as we are immersed in the field of opposites, we are subject to the vicissitudes of the changing field.
The teachings of Vedanta guide us to attend and be absorbed in the field of the unchanging. However, it is imperative that we engage in a direct experience of the unchanging, without which this pursuit is futile. The path of freedom is not an intellectual or conceptual exercise. It necessitates a complete transformation. An overwhelming letting go of personal concepts. A blank canvas, if you will, a purified space that is beyond all forms, physical, emotional and intellectual. A sublime awareness, a clarity that contains the whole, is beyond the whole. That, we may call the Self.
I know and appreciate that challenge leads to deeper understanding. A transcendence, if you will, of my individual inclination and mental thinking. One who is on a spiritual path pursues and profoundly aspires to freedom from being bound by any distinctive preference or abstract longing of any kind, however sublime. Let me be clear that when I refer to a spiritual path, I mean the journey that is taken when one who is seeking to expand their understanding beyond the experience of the finite body and mind.
I think many of us as young children experience a universe without boundaries. That is often referred to as innocence. Is this an awareness of immortality? I do know that from a young age I was compelled to discover a state of being which was not confined to my experience of time and space. I described this as freedom. I flung myself into this life in a relentless and joyful pursuit of that freedom. Was it intellectual freedom? Emotional and physical freedom? While all of these are a great privilege, they are also inevitably bound to fail. The reason for this is that all this freedom is inevitably linked with the body and mind, with finiteness as its very essence.
How can liberation be finite?
I want to think that when faced with death, my own or of those who are dear, I will be imbued with overwhelming strength and conviction that only the body dies and that we are not just the body.
Now I know that these questions have perplexed, consumed and inspired humanity for millennia. I at this time have one question: Am I utterly convinced of immortality? As a long time meditator, I would love to claim with considerable assurance, yes! However, I am also aware that until that moment is upon me, faith is an open question.
How does one know immortality? Knowledge requires enquiry and direct experience. This knowledge transforms our awareness into a fire, a flame that burns confusion and doubt, burns all questions and all answers. It is the flame of knowledge.
”I am the flame of knowledge that burns all action-
Free from action am I.
I am the flame of knowledge that burns all pain—
Free from pain am I.
I am the flame of knowledge that burns all body—
Free from body am I.
I am the knowledge of immortality,
Bliss existence like the sky,
Pure existence like the sky.”
Song of the Unborn:The Avadhoot Gita of Dattaraya, Chapter 3 Verse 9 Seegla Brecher
A question emerges: Is the experience of space that we know in meditation an immediate experience of immortality? I would have to say yes, as it is formless, therefore deathless and eternal. And so whatever crisis of faith or doubt presents itself would be in the nature of form, thus changing. Once we have come to experience the changing landscape of uncertainty, it potentially has less influence. Is a crisis in faith an impetus to a profound strength? I would say, based on my understanding, yes.
Doubt is a form or manner of enquiry. Without enquiry how will we come to know ourselves? How will we begin to experience knowledge? If we assume that questioning, uncertainty and doubt are prerequisites to unfolding awareness, then let us welcome doubt. Let us encourage query in all its forms.
Of course, enquiry for its own sake can take on the attributes of mental indulgence. However, I am referring to a genuine self-enquiry, which I am convinced determines heightened wisdom. If we see that all doubt and uncertainty change, we can also observe that the release from doubt also comes. I would venture to assert that ultimately neither are correct if we claim that the essence of truth is that which is unchanging and eternal.
Our own experience of an unchanging state, like a perfect gap of silence between the musical notes of the doubtful questioning mind, is a conviction of truth that we keep returning to. This conviction ultimately releases a crisis of faith. There is a conviction in the field of a linear spiritual practice that each release from doubt, each emancipation from crisis unfolds a deepening strength. An endurance of light. I call it faith.
Going into the light I know I am that knowledge of immortality.
My understanding is that without knowledge there can be no faith. To strengthen this conviction, I would like to determine what is knowledge—and by knowledge in this instance, I mean spiritual knowledge—what is faith, and what, if anything, is their relationship.
Plato states ”those who see the absolute and eternal and immutable may be said to know.”
I want to establish that this exploration of the nature of knowledge and faith are of personal experiential quality. I would not venture to attempt an in-depth, all-inclusive treatise on these topics. This exploration is purely to determine the essential nature of these precepts in my personal experience, study and understanding, and to investigate what I believe to be the inevitable link and correspondence between them. I propose an exploration of how knowledge and faith are inexorably intertwined.
Firstly, I would like to voice the following: faith, doubt and any ostensible crisis all belong to the body, mind and intellect. Liberation and bondage, birth and death—all these belong to the changing ephemeral field of existence. To see the absolute and eternal is to know the unchanging. Unchanging is just that: unchanging. Any pursuit of liberation is for the changing, aspiring seeker. The immutable state craves no liberation, no faith, no release or exultation.
Let us explore worship and faith. Can we describe the phenomenon of faith, the conviction of unity? Worship implies subject and object, albeit with the ultimate desire or aim of transcended unity. What if I were to propose that there is always only unity, union or oneness. It is only the journey of discovery by worship and faith, with the tools of self-enquiry, that result in the absolute knowingness and realization of that unity.
Fear stems from that which you perceive as other than you. The ultimate fear and the ultimate intimacy is with birth and death. As long as we identify with only the condition of the body, this reality of birth and death will, of necessity, prevail. Thus, the journeys focus needs to be the release of the identification with the body and the concentrated, intended absorption in the whole, with a particular emphasis on the source. As long as the source is the supreme prevailing reality, clarity may ensue.
To sum up the practice, we need to initially determine what the changing material reality is, and what is the source, the unchanging reality. Only when we have disentangled this experience and perception can we focus on the immutable truth that is the source. With this knowledge of the unchanging, faith and doubt, perfection and imperfection, body and spirit, birth and death—all apparent dualism—become absorbed and dissolved into one whole direct experience.
When we explore, practice and live the awareness of oneness, that in reality there is only one Self, not an ego-enhancing reflection of “I,” rather a profound recognition of a unified source of life, this experience and vision of one “I” is the answer, the question, and the peace of the answered state. It is liberation.
Only through the practice of dispassion—when all desire ceases, there is no “other,” and all that remains is bliss—does one reach the culmination of knowledge, the awareness of the eternal, that which is unceasing and beyond any texture of form.This is faith. Faith is the immediate knowledge of this awareness.
Knowledge in Advaita philosophy implies the immediate transcendent experience of the Self, the infinite “I.”
“First you should know your “I.” There is nothing which is not “I.” When everything is dissolved “I” remains. “I” is the source, the whole. We are all that pure consciousness. “I” is One, “I” is none.” —Swami Shyam
If we accept the premise that we are not only our changing body, then we can open ourselves to an immediate awareness that is more than our formed reality. Let me reiterate here that when I refer to the body, I include the whole composition of mind, body, emotion, ego and intellect. This knowledge of “I” is a knowledge that transcends any individual personality—an experience, or attending, that is absorbed in the absolute; that attends the source, the whole.
I often address and challenge myself with the questions: What do I believe? What do I know? In the past, the very appearance of this question confounded and even slightly embarrassed me. I have been a practicing meditator on a spiritual path with the invaluable guidance of a supreme master for the better part of my adult life. How can I ask this question?
I cannot ignore that the repeated appearance of this question is the very foundation of my spiritual practiced. This practice is a discipline of constant investigation, an incessant unwavering phenomenon of self-enquiry. In actuality, I am convinced that this self-enquiry is a prerequisite, an imperative to all spiritual growth. Having accepted, rather surrendered to the ceaseless appearance of the questioning state, I would like to venture here a brief treatise on my belief. Therein lie absorption and transcendence.
As I have stated in the previous paragraph, I believe in the essential value of self-enquiry, as the unbroken questioning of my beliefs or faith can testify. I trust fundamentally in the empirical knowledge gleaned from my own direct experience. I know transcendence, the experience of an infinite state, beyond all the pairs of opposites, and most importantly beyond birth and death and the bound conviction of the changing formed apparent reality.
Reading back this last paragraph my breath stops in a moment of exultation. How boldly and fearlessly I declare my faith in the immortal nature of the Self. And with full awareness I will state: This I have experienced directly.
Is this awareness of the unchanging reality un unbroken transcendent vision? I assert: No!
Does this statement negate the underlying reality and awareness of this incomparable state? Undeniably, no.
This awareness is knowingness. This awareness is faith.
What a bold declaration!
Immortal am I!
Blissful am I!
I keep meditating on this, giving words, sounds and nuance to a blank canvas. Awareness is knowingness; awareness is faith. I propose that perfect faith is also perfect doubt. The one who has impeccable faith can push the boundaries of that faith while exploring all manner of questioning, enquiry and doubt.
As doubt, uncertainty, feeling and conviction are all phenomena of change, an inescapable occurrence of doubt will take place. It has occurred to me that remaining steadfast in devotion while being assailed by doubt is an expression of profound faith.
Shattered concepts, beyond all concepts, beyond faith and crisis, knowledge and doubt, beyond liberation and bondage, therein lies the absolute.
There I am, there am I.
I am the knowledge of immortality
Pure existence like the sky
bliss existence like the sky